A Changing Rehoboth

A Town Square opinion: A bit grayer, a lot more expensive; yet Rehoboth Beach, DE remains a gay-friendly destination

When I tell anyone not from the mid-Atlantic region that I vacation and plan to retire in Delaware, the response is usually, “Why?” My two word answer is “Rehoboth Beach.” I have been traveling to Rehoboth for vacations for twenty years and I still enjoy it as much as I did my first time there.

The first time in Rehoboth is like an initiation: walking the town’s streets, exploring T-shirt shops, eating Thrasher’s fries, strolling along the boardwalk and finding the gay beach — a.k.a. Poodle Beach — at the end. Gays and lesbians who prefer more privacy and a few pine trees, not to mention taking their dogs onto the sand, head to North Shores. Then, as happy hour approaches, it’s time to visit the many bars and restaurants.

Twenty years ago there was really only one, the grande dame of Rehoboth gay bars, the Blue Moon. I remember walking in for the first time with eight friends, telling them how I was excited to be there. And then the bartender yelled out, “Hey Peter, white wine?” It took some convincing to get my friends to believe that Buddy knew me from his bartending days in D.C.

I still go to the Blue Moon, but I have many more options for sipping my white wine: Cloud 9, Aqua, Purple Parrot, Double L, Frog Pond, and Harlows, among other gay or gay-friendly places. Twenty years ago, when walking down the street holding hands with another guy there was a good chance that someone would yell “faggot” at you. These days, you’re more likely to find another couple smiling back at you. Where once rednecks would throw eggs at the outside patio of the Blue Moon, today Rehoboth is a place where the police receive sensitivity training from the GLBT community.

Contrary to some recent reports and murmurings, Rehoboth today is as gay friendly a community as you will find. There are still occasional incidents, but there are incidents in Ft. Lauderdale, D.C., New York and every other gay friendly city as well. No one thinks such isolated incidents means a city isn’t gay friendly.

But there are changes in Rehoboth that do affect the GLBT community in real ways. The one big negative is that there is no longer a dance bar in town. The Strand closed years ago and now the Renegade has closed. Everyone hopes that in the next few years an investor will open a new dance club on Route 1. Now I don’t happen to frequent dance bars, but I love to watch the young guys that do and I know that a dance club is important for the younger members of our community and therefore important to Rehoboth.

What we are seeing in Rehoboth is the aging of the gay population and the wonderful influx of a huge lesbian community. Of course, on a busy weekend you’ll see guys from 21 to 70 in all the bars and restaurants. But the aging of the population is a reality. Rehoboth Beach is expensive. It’s nearly impossible to find a condo or house in town for under $500,000 and they go into the millions. The condo I first rented in 1984 was $750 a week for eight of us. Today that condo rents for about $2,200 a week. It was offered for sale in 1984 at about $125,000 — last year it sold for over $700,000.

It’s harder for young men and women starting out in life to come for a vacation, or to consider buying. But what is amazing is how many of the people I started coming to Rehoboth with twenty years ago now own homes there and use them year-round — I have three friends that have moved to Rehoboth this year as fulltime residents. New developments in town and just outside in Sussex County have huge populations of gay and lesbian residents, with more buying each year. It is becoming a year-round town with the only two truly quiet months being January and February. But the jazz and film festivals, Cabaret Week, sidewalk sales and other special events make the community enjoyable and busy every other month of the year.

Rehoboth Beach has just elected its second openly gay town commissioner, Patrick Gossett, who received the highest vote total of any candidate. CAMP Rehoboth, publisher of Letters from CAMP Rehoboth and sponsor of the new Rehoboth Beach GLBT Community Center, just purchased a second building, enabling them to turn the center into a compound on Baltimore Avenue. The community center and CAMP thrive through the work of hundreds of gay, lesbian and straight volunteers, both young and semi-retired, and the amazing and dedicated work of CAMP’s founders, Steve Elkins and his partner Murray Archibald.

The gay and lesbian community of Rehoboth may be a little older, but is still vibrant. But what the aging of the GLBT community means is that the community center will have to make one of its focuses working on the problems facing seniors. But the positive is it will also have a much more well-heeled community with vast experience in every area to deal with these issues.

Labor Day weekend will see the 17th Sundance Party, which this year will attract about 2,400 people and raise nearly $200,000. Summer fundraisers for political candidates and causes — John Kerry, Stonewall Democrats, Delaware Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, Va. State Rep. Adam Ebbin — and community service and support groups — the Mautner Project, Liberty Fund, CAMP Rehoboth, Sussex County AIDS, AIDS Action — collectively will raise nearly $400,000.

Rehoboth may be graying, but then so is our whole population. The welcome mat is out for the GLBT community and what we do when we get there is really up to us. Those of us living there like the diversity in the community and its willingness to let us live and love in the way we choose.

Peter D. Rosenstein is a longtime GLBT and political activist in Washington, D.C. Metro Weekly‘s Town Square is a forum for members of the Washington-area GLBT community to express their views on issues and topics of the day. For information and submission guidelines e-mail townsquare@metroweekly.com.

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